Silicon Valley has fundamentally changed the way people live, revolutionising human interactions, disrupting decades-old industries, and introducing innovations into ever more parts of daily life. Governments must respond with revolutionary thinking, ensuring that public policy matches this unprecedented scale of change.
Social media platforms like Facebook, Twitter, and YouTube have given a voice to millions on the international stage, enabling the local to become global and the global to become local. These platforms help everyone from politicians and chief executives to teenagers to share their stories. Likewise, apps such as Uber, Airbnb, and Deliveroo have drastically altered the way people travel, stay, and eat, by introducing technology into traditional services to make them more accessible and user centred while providing new, flexible models for employment.
These platforms often have unexpected consequences and by-products that can have adverse impacts. Social media has helped like-minded people around the world to connect, but in some cases it has also aided the causes of Islamist or far-right extremists by introducing them to similarly inclined individuals and organisations. Unintentionally, social media has strengthened these networks, giving extremists the tools to reinforce their closed-minded worldviews.
However, unintended consequences and difficult conversations are not reasons to try to stem the tide of technological advancement. Progress today requires a new way of thinking, in which decisionmakers give as much thought to responsibility, sustainability, and the impact of technology on society as they do to the technology itself. The ‘act first, think later’ way of working must give way to a more considered, contemplative approach to introducing innovation.
A new paper by the Tony Blair Institute for Global Change highlights obstacles and opportunities that lie ahead for policymakers in the fast-paced and fast-changing world of digital technology, outlining what governments need to do to make innovation work
The paper argues for new public-interest obligations on big technology platforms, moving beyond current models of corporate social responsibility, and for more awareness of the far-reaching social impact and influence these platforms have.
The battle against online extremism and disinformation is an apt example of how innovations that have had an overwhelmingly positive impact on global interactions and connectivity have been exploited by groups with nefarious objectives. Whether it is ISIS videos on YouTube, the encrypted communications of the group’s supporters, or Russian-backed ads on Facebook and Twitter that seek to influence elections, none of these represents what tech developers set out to revolutionise.
Terrorists excel at exploiting opportunities, forging something out of what already exists. But terrorists did not create Twitter, YouTube, or Facebook – although they have used these platforms extensively. So the balance of power lies not with abusers of platforms but with their developers and governments.
With the formation of the Global Internet Forum to Counter Terrorism and a landmark event at the UN in September on preventing terrorist use of the Internet, it is clear that both tech companies and governments are aware of the scale of the challenge and the need to act. The introduction of artificial intelligence, machine learning, and natural language processing technology to identify and remove terrorist content online is a positive move to make the Internet safer. But an overreliance on censorship detracts from the other ways technology can support the fight against extremism.
Education programmes like Generation Global use online videoconferencing and learning platforms to enable interaction and dialogue between students and their peers around the world, helping them to navigate discussions of identify, diversity, and faith and to learn from the perspectives and experiences of fellow students.
Educators should use digital communications platforms to transform classrooms into launch pads for lifelong learning.
By engaging with other students around the world, learning from each other about shared values and diverse beliefs, and encountering difference and disagreement through dialogue, young people can be equipped with the skills to remain resilient in the face of divisive, hate-filled narratives.
More broadly, education systems must reflect the changes that are taking place in the world and play a role in shaping and preparing young people to become open-minded, tolerant members of society. Young people are probably better informed about social media platforms and trends than most teachers are, but questions of what constitutes hate speech, harassment, or online bullying need to be covered in the classroom.
Likewise, it is vital to teach young people about matters pertaining to privacy, data, and safety online, as well as to educate them about the reporting tools available to make their online environment safer. Developing critically minded, well-informed, and confident Internet citizens is more powerful than embarking on a cycle of censorship.
In supporting the efforts of local communities to fight back against extremist narratives, there is a need to move beyond slick, well-designed counter-extremist content and equip those engaged on the front line with the skills and training to engage with communities. By bridging the generational divide between digital natives and digital outsiders, parents, guardians, community and religious leaders, and anyone else in a position of care can be equipped with an understanding of the risks of online platforms, what to look out for when it comes to radicalisation and grooming, and how to use these platforms to engage with young people and challenge extremist narratives.
Reactionary, knee-jerk policymaking that offers only temporary solutions to ever-evolving challenges must make way for a more considered approach that recognises the far-reaching implications of technology on politics, the economy, and society at large. Banning and censorship cannot be the only solutions to the challenges faced by societies around the world. The nature of the technology in today’s globalised societies requires policymakers to think bigger and broader. A comprehensive, proactive approach is required to overcome obstacles and open up the opportunities presented by technology today.
As advancements in digital communications and artificial intelligence continue, those developing these technologies must learn from the experiences of social media and messaging apps, whose innovations have been hijacked by people and groups with malicious aims. Technology companies have demonstrated their commitment to tackling such abuses, but they must move beyond responding to threats and frontload considerations about security, safety, and social impact and responsibility from the design phase, rather than dealing with them as an afterthought.
The fight against extremism is multidimensional and constantly evolving.
Those who perpetuate extremist narratives online are not marketing experts but products of their time in how they use online communication platforms. Effectively challenging them, not just censoring them, requires a rethink from both governments and technology companies. Responsible leadership and decisionmaking are required from governments and technology firms to deliver the products and services needed to reap the benefits of innovation and make technology work for everyone.